One can learn a lot about a culture from the words and ideas it pushes into early retirement. Our own age is rich in such conceptual emeriti, as anyone who has pondered the recent careers of “disinterested,” “manly,” “respectable” or “virtuous” knows well. And consider the word “leisure,” an idea that for the Greeks and for the doctors of the Church was bound up with the highest aspirations of humanity. For Plato, for Aristotle, for Aquinas, we live most fully when we are most fully at leisure. Leisure – the Greek word is schole, whence our word “school” –meant the opposite of “downtime”. 

“Leisure,” Aristotle wrote, is “better than” action and is its end. Leisure in this sense is not idleness, but activity undertaken for its own sake: for example, philosophy, aesthetic delectation, and religious worship. It is significant that in both Greek and Latin, the words for leisure – schole and otium – are positive, while the corresponding terms for “busyness” – ascholia and negotium (whence our “negotiate”) – are privative: not at leisure, i.e., busy, occupied, engaged. And for us? Of course we still have the word “leisure.” But it lives on in a pale, desiccated form. Think for example of the phrase “leisure suit”: this odious object epitomises the unhappy fate of leisure in our society.

Not that we can necessarily trust everything that goes under the name of philosophy. 

At first blush, it might seem odd that leisure should survive in such degraded form. After all, the United States and Western Europe have never been richer or more concerned with “quality of life”. By every objective measure, we can certainly afford leisure. An army of experts and a library of self-help books urge us to salvage “quality time”. What time could be of higher quality than leisure, as Aristotle understood it? But all such remedial gestures underscore the extent to which our society has devoted itself to defeating genuine leisure, replacing it where possible with mere entertainment, and disparaging efforts to preserve oases of leisure as the pernicious indulgence of an outmoded elite.

Probably the most profound meditation on the meaning of leisure is a little book by the German neo-Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper called in English Leisure, the Basis of Culture. It consists of two essays, “Leisure and Worship” and “The Philosophical Act”, both of which Pieper wrote in 1947. They were published together in English in 1952 in a volume introd­uc­ed by T.S. Eliot.­ Pieper, who died in 1997 at the age of 93, is pretty much a forgotten figure today. But in the Fifties and Sixties he commanded wide respect and exerted considerable intellectual influence.

The introduction by Eliot is one sign of the seriousness with which he was regarded. Another sign was the book’s reception by reviewers. The Times Literary Supplement devoted a long and admiring piece to the book, as did The New Statesman. The Spectator was briefer but no less admiring: “These two short essays... go a long way towards a lucid explanation of the present crisis in civilization.” The book was also widely noticed in the United States: reviews from The Nation, the Chicago Tribune, Commonweal and The San Francisco Chronicle commended it to readers, and the review by Allen Tate in The New York Times Book Review probably did as much as Eliot’s introduction to stimulate interest in Pieper.

Pieper not only wrote about leisure. He was also a writer whose work requires leisure (I do not mean simply “spare time”) if it is to be properly read. Not that he is “difficult” or overly technical. On the contrary, Pieper wrote with a glittering simplicity, but the tintinnabulation of unleisured life deafens us to such quiet dignity. We must stop to listen if we are to hear these arguments, and stopping and listening are difficult things to accomplish in a world that rejects leisure. Pieper’s is the hard-won simplicity that comes at the end of an intellectual journey. It is the fruit of confident mastery, like The Tempest or Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 135. Pieper had no use for jargon or technicalities. His favoured form is the long essay made up of short sentences. His books, almost all shorter than 150 pages, carry quotations from Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Descartes and Kant. And yet they somehow escape seeming academic.

This is in part because of the Pieper’s subjects. Although he wrote important books about Plato, he was first of all a specialist in the philosophy of Aquinas. His Guide to Thomas Aquinas is a splendid introduction to the intellectual and social world inhabited by the philosopher. It is true that Aquinas does not always elicit clarity from his commentators. But Pieper wrote about him not as an academic subject but as someone who had irreplaceable things to say about the moral and intellectual realities of life – our life. He manages to make Aquinas’s vocabulary seem the most natural language possible for discussing the subject at hand. (He manages the same trick with Plato and Aristotle.) This is a testimony to Pieper’s rhetorical skill, the highest rhetorical achievement being to make itself invisible.

We are not now in the exigent state of Europe in the late 1940s. But more than ever we live in a world ruled by the demands of productivity. Every human enterprise is subject to the scrutiny of the balance sheet.

It also says something about the naturalness of the categories that Aquinas used to discuss moral questions. Pieper first made his name with a series of essays on the so-called Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. These terms can seem dated to modern ears. Yet in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues (1965) Pieper shows with beguiling straightforwardness that, by whatever names we choose to call them, they are indispensable to the common realities of life.

As is often the case with things that are indispensable, the importance of these principles goes unnoticed until they collapse. Then their centrality snaps into focus. In No One Could Have Known (1979), an autobiography that takes Pieper from his birth in a village outside Münster to the end of the Second World War, he recounts a chilling story from 1942 when he worked as a psychologist in the German army. Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union had put German troops deep into Russia. Pieper encountered a young man of 18 “who still had the look of a child about him”. He wore the uniform of a volunteer driver and worked for the Nazis behind the front. Pieper asked the boy what he did.

“Lately we did practically nothing but transport Jews.”

I pretended to be puzzled, not to understand. “Were the Jews being evacuated? Or where did you drive them?”

“No, they were driven into the forest. And there they were shot.”

“And where did you collect them?”

“The Jews used to wait in the market square. They thought they were being resettled. They had suitcases and parcels with them. But they had to throw them onto a big pile. And straight away the Ukrainian militia went after the things.”

“And then you drove them to the forest. But the shooting – you were told about it later; it’s only hearsay.”

Then the boy got very angry in the face of so much distrust and stupidity. “No! I saw it myself.  I saw them being shot!”

“And what did you say about that?”

“Oh well, of course you feel a bit funny at first. . . .”

And then?

And then, presumably, moral anaesthesia takes over and you stop thinking about it. In one sense, Pieper’s work aims to provide an antidote to such moral insensibility. Philosophy, of course, is a futile weapon against tyranny, a point underscored by Stalin when he contemptuously asked how many divisions the Pope commanded. But philosophy is not at all futile in helping to create a moral climate intolerant of tyranny, which helps to explain why in the end the Pope prevailed over the tyranny of Communism.

More and more, so-called liberal arts institutions are vocational schools at best; at worst they are circuses of narcissism. 

Not that we can necessarily trust everything that goes under the name of philosophy. In his introduction to Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Eliot remarked that philosophy had somehow lost its way – philosophy, that is, in an older meaning of the word, as a source of insight and wisdom. Philosophy in this “ampler sense” had been overtaken by technical specialities, of which logical positivism was a conspicuous example. (In retrospect, Eliot suggested, logical positivism will appear as “the counterpart of surrealism: for as surrealism seemed to provide a method of producing works of art without imagination so logical positivism seems to provide a method of philosophising without insight and wisdom”.) Pieper’s chief importance was to provide a compelling counterexample. “In a more general way,” Eliot wrote, Pieper’s “influence should be in the direction of restoring philosophy to a place of importance for every educated person who thinks, instead of confining it to esoteric activities which can affect the public only indirectly, insidiously, and often in a distorted form.”

Well, Pieper did provide the example. But it cannot be said that he provided the restoration that Eliot hoped for. With some notable exceptions, philosophy – or the activity that goes under that alias in the university today – is every bit as impoverished and lost in bootless specialisation as it was 60 years ago. More so, perhaps, if for no other reason than that there are so many more people calling themselves philosophers today. Logical positivism was sterile. But at least it made sense.

If Pieper is right, the current disarray of philosophy should come as no surprise. For philosophy in that ampler sense depends on leisure. It is not primarily a mode of analysis but an attitude of openness: it is a contemplative attitude of beholding. It is one of the ironies of contemporary academic life that what is called “theory” in the world of Lit Crit means more or less the opposite of what the word theoria meant for the Greeks. Today’s “theory” involves the willful imposition of one’s ideas upon reality. In its original sense, however, theory betokened a patient receptiveness to reality. Philosophy, the theoretical activity par excellence, not only depends upon leisure but is also the fulfilment or the end of leisure. Consequently, the obliteration of leisure naturally leads to the perversion of philosophy.

It also leads to a perversion of culture, at least in so far as culture is understood not as an anthropological datum but as the repository of spiritual self-understanding: “the best,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “that has been thought and said in the world.” Leisure guarantees the integrity of high culture, its freedom from the endless round of means and ends. It was Pieper’s great accomplishment to understand the deep connection between leisure and spiritual freedom.

Of course there are many obstacles. As Roger Scruton has noted, “leisure has had a bad press. For the puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege.” There is also the related problem of simple pragmatism. If “maximising profits” is a kind of categorical imperative, how can genuine leisure, not simply periodic vacations from labour, be justified? What is the use of something that is self-confessedly useless?

Defending leisure is always an audacious undertaking. It was particularly audacious in 1947 when Germany was desperately trying to mend its ravaged physical and moral fabric. Especially at such times, leisure is likely to seem a luxury, a dispensable indulgence that distracts from the necessary work at hand. Pieper acknowledges the force of this objection. “We are engaged in the re-building of a house, and our hands are full. Shouldn’t all our efforts be directed to nothing other than the completion of that house?” 

The answer is that the task of building or rebuilding is never merely a problem of engineering. If it were, human life could be reduced to a problem of animal husbandry. Something more is needed: a vision of society, of the vocation of humanity. And the preservation of that vision is intimately bound up with the preservation of leisure. Even at a time of emergency such the aftermath of World War II – perhaps especially at such times – the task of rebuilding requires a hiatus in which we can reaffirm our humanity. The name of that hiatus is leisure. “To build our house,” Pieper writes, “implies not only securing survival, but also putting in order again our entire moral and intellectual heritage. And before any detailed plan along these lines can succeed, our new beginning, our re-foundation, calls out for a defence of leisure.”

We are not now in the exigent state of Europe in the late 1940s. But more than ever we live in a world ruled by the demands of productivity. Every human enterprise is subject to the scrutiny of the balance sheet. Rest, vacations and breaks are acknowledged necessities, but only as unfortunate requirements for continued productivity. Consequently, free time is not so much a leisured alternative to work as its continuation. The world is increasingly rationalised, as Max Weber put it. Now we face the prospect of a leisure-less culture of “total work”, a world that excludes the traditional idea of leisure in principle. Pieper found the perfect motto for this attitude in a passage quoted by Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: “One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one’s work, and if there is no more work to do one suffers or goes to sleep.” It is Pieper’s task to show us how this credo “turns the order of things upside-down”.

It is a measure of how far the imperative of total work has taken hold that the opposing classical and medieval ideal – that, in Aristotle’s phrase, we work in order to be at leisure – seems unintelligible or faintly immoral. Even purely intellectual activity is rebaptised as “work” in order to rescue it from the charge of idleness. The image of intellectual work and the intellectual worker presents us with a vision of the world whose ideal is busyness. 

René Descartes promised that, by using his scientific method, man could make himself the “master and possessor of nature”. Three centuries of scientific and technological progress have done a lot to prove Descartes right. Pieper’s question is what happens when that technological model of knowledge is taken to be definitive of human knowing. Presented with a rose, we can observe and study it, or we can merely look and admire its beauty. For the intellectual worker, only the former is really legitimate. Wonder is a waste of time. It produces nothing, nor does it further understanding. Descartes hoped to explain extravagant natural phenomena such as meteors and lightning in such a way that “one will no longer have occasion to admire anything about what is seen”. Far from being a prelude to insight, wonder was an impediment to the technology of knowledge.

Of course, we should not wish to do without the blessings of that technology. We live in a world shaped by the Cartesian imperative, and the first response of any sane person must be “Thank God for that”. But our first response needn’t be our only response. Pieper’s point is that the discursive knowledge – whose end is the analysis, manipulation, and reconstruction of reality – is not the only model of human knowing.

It is one of the ironies of Pieper’s world of total work that, although it underwrites our objective control of the world, it also insinuates a corrosive subjectivism and relativism into our attitude toward the world. “The other, hidden, side of the same dictum... is the claim made by man: if knowing is work, exclusively work, then the one who knows, knows only the fruit of his own, subjective activity, and nothing else. There is nothing in his knowing that is not the fruit of his own efforts; there is nothing ‘received’ in it.” The moral aspect of this refusal is a kind of spiritual imperviousness, “the hard quality of not-being-able-to-receive; a stoniness of heart that will not brook any resistance”.

Pieper’s brief on behalf of leisure is not an attack on work as such. “What is normal,” he acknowledges, is work, and the normal day is a working day. But the question is this: can the world of man be exhausted in being the “working world”? Can a human being be satisfied with being a functionary, a “worker”? Can human existence be fulfilled in being exclusively a work-a-day existence? Or, to put it another way, from the other direction, as it were: Are there such things as liberal arts?

In The Idea of a University, Pieper points out, Newman translates artes liberales as “knowledge possessed of a gentleman,” that is to say, knowledge born of leisure. An index of the spiritual plight that Pieper describes is the collapse of liberal arts in our society. More and more, so-called liberal arts institutions are vocational schools at best; at worst they are circuses of narcissism. The schole, the leisure, has effectively been drained out of school, as “job training” becomes the sole justification for education.

Again, Pieper does not dispute the importance of training. We cannot do without “the useful arts” – medicine, law, economics, biology, physics: all those disciplines that relate to “purposes that exist apart from themselves”. The question is whether they exhaust the meaning of education. Is education synonymous with training? Or is there a dimension of learning that is undertaken not to negotiate advantage in the world but purely for its own sake? “To translate the question into contemporary language,” Pieper writes, “it would sound something like this: Is there still an area of human action, or human existence as such, that does not have its justification by being part of the machinery of a ‘five year plan’? Is there or is there not something of that kind?” To answer yes is to affirm the province of leisure. It is to affirm the value of uselessness, the preciousness of a dimension free from the realm of work.